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Thanks to Harvey, Snapchat’s map feature went from being kind of creepy to really useful

When Snapchat first launched its Snap Map feature, it was derided by parents and privacy advocates as a way to stalk people, particularly vulnerable teens. Map, which is accessed by pinching in on the app’s main camera screen, used Snapchat’s sophisticated geolocation data to show a user’s exact location in the form of a cartoon bitmoji. The data was so specific that you could pinpoint a friend’s location in a building or on a particular block. Users have the choice of whether to appear on the map, or to appear only to friends. Still, people were spooked.

But there is another far more important feature to the map that hadn’t really gotten its due until Hurricane Harvey struck.

A heat map feature shows where Snaps are most concentrated, and users can pinch and zoom with their fingers to move around and focus on particular areas.

Snap Map provides a verifiable account of what is happening anywhere in the world. And right now, all eyes are on Harvey’s path.

In Houston, a quick search on the map puts users right in the convention center where thousands of people are seeking shelter and volunteers are hard at work sorting supplies. Or you can hover over neighborhoods to watch people being rescued from submerged houses by rescuers in boats. You can see users posting locations of power outages. You can watch the floodwaters rise, or recede, through the eyes of Snapchatters posting from a particular location over time. You can peer into people’s houses and watch as they sift through damaged furniture and mementos.

Snapchat saw higher submissions to the Our Story stream designated for Harvey than for other natural disasters, according to a company spokesman. It received 250,000 to 300,000 submissions in 86 hours as Harvey approached and began to pummel Texas. Thousands and thousands more have poured in over the past few days, the social network said.

The Snaps featured on the maps are algorithmically sorted, and not all Snaps submitted to Our Story will appear on the map, but there are still hundreds of eyewitness accounts available for perusal.

Harvey flooding leads to fires at Texas chemical plant, turns a city into an island

The most famous mapping Snaps to come out of Harvey so far seem to be posts unearthed by Snapchat’s head of news, Pete Hamby. President Trump proclaimed, “What a crowd, what a turnout!” during a stop in Corpus Christi, Tex., to survey the situation. But Snaps found by Hamby using Map appeared to show that Trump’s actual location was rather removed from the crowd.

Snapchat is among several platforms to roll out a map feature. Facebook has a Live Map, which displays Facebook Lives around the world. Periscope has a similar feature for its live streams. But Snapchat’s version may be the most compelling and provides the most human, raw and intimate portrait of any user-generated, content-driven map function so far.

What is striking is that an app that’s known for dogface filters and Kardashian brand-building is suddenly playing a key role in helping casual users — and news organizations — observe a large-scale news story as told directly by the people who are living through it. That humanizing quality alone makes Snap Map an invaluable new way to observe our world, particularly in moments of strife or celebration.

An adrenaline-driven mission on the dark, watery streets of Texas

Of course, if breaking news is being alerted on an app, news organizations are going to jump on it (see also: Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Instagram, et. al.). And, man, does Snap Map have potential.

“I think Snap Maps is a tool that I’ll keep using more and more in my reporting,” said Taylor Lorenz, senior editor and director of emerging platforms at the Hill. “Twitter is great for real-time info, but most normal people don’t have Twitter, and Snapchat provides a more raw, visual and unbiased picture of a scene. I mostly cover breaking news, so Snap Maps has been a lifesaver.”

Lorenz said she has been using Snap Map to keep up with Harvey developments and to keep an eye on protests, which she covers regularly.

Yet there are hurdles for news organizations who use Snap Map for reporting. The app is somewhat difficult for new users to navigate, which could delay widespread newsroom adoption. And the anonymity of the Snap Map posters — and inability to contact a poster — makes it super difficult for a news organization to get permission to use the content. So far, it’s best for monitoring situations on the ground.

Snapchat really wants people to use its feature to meet up with friends nearby or to see what they’re up to. But as Harvey showed, its best-use case might be giving us a glimpse into the lives of anonymous strangers, particularly in times when our empathy, aid and attention are needed.